Contemporary Sikhism symposium at CCISC

Demelza JonesSarah-Jane Page

On 9th March CCISC hosted an inter-disciplinary symposium on Contemporary Sikhism, attended by forty delegates including academics, students, practitioners (from religious and inter-faith institutions and NGOS) and members of the public. The event took place as part of the work of the CCISC Religion and Belief research cluster and was organised by cluster co-leads Dr Sarah Jane Page Dr Demelza Jones.

Event programme

The event kicked off with the first of our two keynote speakers, Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar. Opinderjit is Senior Lecturer and Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton and the Director of the UK’s first and only Centre for Sikh and Panjabi Studies. Opinderjit’s talk was titled ‘Sikhi & the Sikhs in contemporary British society’ and drew on her extensive and wide-ranging research into issues of Sikh identity and experience to discuss a number of issues faced by Sikhs living in Britain; including hate crime, challenges around the survival of the Panjabi language and culture, caste, gender and activism. The talk particularly focused on debates around caste and gender, with Opinderjit highlighting a tension between the absence of caste distinctions in Sikh religious teachings and the continuing importance of caste in everyday identification and interactions (such as in marriage); arguing that there is a crucial difference between activism to get rid of caste identification per se, and activism to rid caste relations of prejudice and inequality.

Next was a panel discussion of Sikhism, gender and sexuality. The panel featured two expert contributions from Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal (Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies, University of Birmingham) and Mandeep Singh Sehmi (PhD Researcher, Coventry University). Jagbir drew on her extensive research on gender relations to observe that Sikh women are often absent from debates and activism around issues that impact them, with these debates occurring in male dominated spaces or women simply being too busy doing the ‘triple shift’ to engage in these processes. As such, Sikh teachings on gender equality (Guru Nanak’s ‘feminism’ for example) are not always matched in practice, and women’s behaviour is often presented as a ‘problem’ to be ‘policed’ in relation to a number of critical issues (for example, in inter-faith marriages being linked to anxieties around Sikh population decline). We then heard about Mandeep Singh Sehmi’s fascinating PhD research into the little-studied topic of Sikh LGBT identities and attitudes towards same-sex relationships among the wider British Sikh population. Drawing on in-depth fieldwork, Mandeep explained how while the Sikh tradition is formally opposed to same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage is taboo, there is a developing Sikh LGBT community at both a national and international level. However, while there is growing visibility of LGBT Sikhs in some quarters, most of the same-sex couples he met in the course of his research were also inter-faith couples, and many concealed their sexuality from their families and religious community – the claim that ‘there are no Gay or Lesbian Sikhs’, Mandeep explained, remains common, both in gurdwaras and in online spaces such as Sikh discussion boards.

Discussion during the gender and sexualities panel with Jagbir Jhutti-Johal and Mandeep Singh Sehmi

To close the event, we welcomed our second keynote speaker, Dr Jasjit Singh (Research Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds). Jasjit presented findings of his recent project on ‘the idea, context, framing and realities of ‘Sikh radicalisation’ in Britain’. Funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), this is the first research to empirically interrogate the claims made ahead of the visit to the UK by the Prime Minister of India in 2015 (amplified by the Indian media) that British Sikh youths are being ‘radicalised’ (full report available here). Arguing that the term ‘radicalisation’ itself is often under-specified, Jasjit went on to provide a detailed account of the development of British Sikh activism; from a focus on religious expression (e.g. the right to wear a turban) to the crucial turning point of Operation Blue Star in 1984 which re-orientated activism against the Indian state. Over thirty years later the events of 1984 continue to resonate strongly in British Sikh youth activism, while inter-faith marriages and concerns around sexual grooming have become additional foci for some sections of the youth population. Analysis though, shows that most violent incidents involving British Sikhs are perpetrated against other British Sikhs; perhaps, Jasjit suggested, due to a lack of neutral spaces and structures for contentious issues to be discussed ‘before they become incidents’ (an observation shared by earlier contributors). Jasjit also reflected on the value of community consultation in research – particularly pertinent to the sensitive work he has undertaken, but with broader applicability to a range of research taking place within and outside academia.

Coverage of British Sikh ‘radicalisation’ in the Indian media, from Jasjit Singh’s keynote presentation

We would like to thank Opinderjit, Jagbir, Mandeep and Jasjit for their fascinating contributions, and everyone who attended for their thoughtful and insightful questions and comments. If you missed the symposium you can catch up with some key ‘moments’ via the Twitter hashtag #contemporarysikhism.

This symposium was hosted by the Religion and Belief cluster within the Centre for Contemporary Inquiry into Society and Culture (CCISC) at Aston University, and follows a previous inter-disciplinary symposium ‘Researching the Church of England’ in July 2017. Sarah and Demelza (co-cluster leads) welcome expressions of interest for External Associate membership of the cluster – please email us to discuss this further (d.jones4@aston.ac.uk or s.page1@aston.ac.uk).